A city program offers incentives for downtown improvements.
Published Oct. 4, 2007|Updated Oct. 9, 2007

Brick by brick, Jon Heneghan is unveiling a piece of downtown history.

For months now, he's spent his days on the northwest corner of Garden Avenue and Cleveland Street refurbishing the property known as the old Telephone building.

He's removed enough white and red concrete blocks to fill 14 Dumpsters. He gutted the inside of the three-story building. And he replaced two thin towers and a number of windows.

But most important, he says, he's peeling away the 60-year-old facade, revealing the original red brick fronting that former mayor and developer R.H. Padgett built in 1914.

"I've had some older people drive by as I'm working and they say, 'Hey, that's how I remember it as a kid,'" said Heneghan, 43, who hopes to finish the work by December.

The Chicago native paid for the Telephone building in part with the $611,015 first-place "no-limit hold 'em" purse he won in the 2005 World Series of Poker Tournament in Las Vegas.

But Heneghan isn't doing the renovation without help. In an effort to revitalize downtown, the city of Clearwater is offering incentives to property owners to encourage them to make their facades more attractive.

Under this plan, owners are eligible for matching grants up to $10,000 and matching zero-interest loans up to $35,000 that don't have to be repaid until the property is sold.

The city will also provide property owners a $3,000 grant for a consultant to help provide facade designs.

Heneghan was the first to take advantage of the new program.

"This was very important for us to succeed," said Heneghan, who also leases space in a building he owns on North Fort Harrison Avenue. "It's one of those symbiotic relationships where we help the city and the city can help us."

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The money for the new program comes from property taxes generated within Clearwater's designated "community redevelopment area," and is not used in the city's day-to-day operations. It can be used in only this so-called CRA district, which includes Cleveland Street.

In the past, these funds have been tapped to launch several projects, including downtown condominium buildings and a hotel.

The city will earmark about $100,000 this year for facade work.

In addition, local leaders have invested $10-million in public money into Cleveland Street, the downtown's main east-west thoroughfare, for new sidewalks, landscaping and lighting. City officials are also planning a major push to recruit restaurants and retail shops and create a Web site that details what's going on downtown.

City officials say dressing up the facades shows that Clearwater is serious about continuing to revitalize the area. They also contend the more attractive a building is, the better chance of luring businesses and customers.

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In the past couple of months, city officials spread the word about the new program to business owners, including Heneghan, who was recently approved for a $31,000 loan and a $10,000 grant.

Since buying the building in 2005 for about $660,000, Heneghan has invested about $350,000 into restoring it. He expects to put in another $100,000.

Heneghan has lived in Clearwater for about 12 years, working as a property manager. A poker player all of his life, he began competing in 2004.

"I had some money to invest and I knew Clearwater would take off so I wanted to get on board," said Heneghan, who says he isn't a gambler, but enjoys an occasional poker tournament.

Through the years, the 9,000-square-foot building housed a telephone operations center as well as a number of small shops and eateries. It was most recently used as a plasma center, but has been vacant for about three years.

Heneghan is trying to recruit a Chipotle Mexican Grill, Dunkin' Donuts or Subway for the ground floor and offices for the second floor. Then he'd like to move with his wife, Sylvia, a jewelry designer, and their two children into the third floor.

"It's a big project, maybe more than I expected, but there's no turning back now," he said. "We want to keep the momentum going."

Once the Telephone building is done, he said he'll look for more properties to rehab.

In the meantime, he's found a few believers.

"I was shocked when I drove by and saw the old bricks coming back," said Clearwater historian Mike Sanders. "This is going to help the historic fabric of the downtown and kick-start other façade improvements."